By Jeremy Selwyn
Chief Snacks Officer
When Taquitos.net was launched in July of 2000, with the then-novel idea of reviewing packaged salty snacks, we weren't so concerned about counting them — just looking for ever-crazier flavors, from sour cream & clam to roast beef & mustard and pickle. Little did we know that our discoveries would include BBQ Kangaroo potato chips, Voodoo Gumbo and Mr. Dragon's Fire Chips — or that 11 years later, we'd publish our 5000th snack review.
It started by accident. In the first of many media writeups of this site, BusinessWeek published a small item in the "e.biz" section in early 2001 (unfortunately link rot has severed the article from the Interweb).
I told the BusinessWeek reporter that we had 300 snack reviews and wanted to try every snack on earth. Then, unfortunately, he asked how many that was. I said I had no idea. He asked again, and I wouldn't venture a guess. He kept asking, and eventually I said, well, there's a whole lot of companies and a whole lot of countries and a whole lot of flavors, so maybe 10,000 — but I stressed, really dunno, not my area of expertise, don't quote me on that. So "the 10,000 commercial snacks on earth" figure ended up in BusinessWeek, stated as unattributed fact, and the quest for 10,000 became the theme of the story, pointing out that we had 9700 left to go. Ouch, 300 didn't sound so impressive anymore.
Since then, there's always been an inside-joke goal of 10,000. We've always assumed it was impossible and ridiculous — 10,000 is a heck of a lot of snacks, so that's never gonna happen. But then again, 5000 snacks seemed nearly as absurd, and now we've done it. And we've had a lot of fun along the way.
The snack quest started with potato chips, but the scope gradually expanded to go far beyond, into nearly every category of packaged snack. If we can review potato chips, why not corn chips? And if corn chips are OK, why not pretzels and popcorn? And who doesn't like cheese puffs? Pork rinds, anyone? The first step in making the monumental crossover from salty to sweet came when we discovered Hershey's Swoops. These weren't chips at all — they were chocolate candy shaped like Pringles. Too brilliant not to include. The Swoops ended up being a gateway to many more sweet snacks, as the 5000 include 701 kinds of chocolate. One of those Swoops was a Reese's version, and that was the first of an astounding 46 varieties of Reese's we've reviewed. (Got a hankering for some Swoops? Sorry, Hershey's discontinued them!)
One of our review categories was created to play off on the quirky name of the site: Snacks that Rhyme with Taquito. The criteria for that category remains essentially the same today, but the name has evolved: First, to Snacks That Rhyme with Judge Ito, and now, Snacks that Rhyme with Justice Sam Alito.
Some of our discoveries have stood out not so much for the taste or shape of the snacks, but for the great brand names. Among my favorites: Baconzitos, Zanzibar, Spudmaster ColossalChips, Hog's Heaven Pork Rinds and Mr. Snacko's Pastries. I'm often tempted to legally change my name to Mr. Snacko.
For years, I've had a "chip of the day" on my desk at work. Hundreds of times, I've recycled the joke from Dumb & Dumber by answering the question "What's the chip du jour?" with "It's the chip of the day." That joke never gets old! But it became reality when a company that supplies snacks to the airlines actually sent us a snack called Snack du Jour.
When I'm relentlessly asking people to try snacks like Soft-Shell Crab Pringles, they often ask me, "How do you find all these crazy things?" It's not easy; we didn't get 5000 snacks from 985 companies without some very active chip hunting. Whether I'm near home or traveling, I hunt a lot. Every supermarket trip or stop at a convenience store is another chance to check for undiscovered snacks. (Every stop at a convenience store is also a reminder that I'm the only customer not buying either cigarettes or lottery tickets.)
Sometimes I come across a treasure trove of never-before-seen varieties. You might think that I'd get an odd look from the cashier when I purchase a half-dozen bags of chips (and nothing else). Every once in a while, someone makes a comment, but that's rare. For the most part, they're just routine transactions.
The hunting has been helped along by an army of friends and family who keep their eyes open for that special find. Their destinations have included such exotic locales as Iceland, Thailand, Cuba and Angola.
My personal record for one trip was the 60 bags that I brought back from London in 2001. The British are serious about their crisp variety, so it was hard to resist buying everything in sight. But keeping it to just 60 bags actually required quite a bit of resistance. I hauled a large snack-filled box on the Underground to Heathrow. This huge box didn't get any trouble from security, Customs or Immigration, just one Customs person asking "What's in the box?" and not even an odd look when I answered, "Potato chips."
On a trip to Montreal, I found a store in Chinatown that had many tempting snacks that I'd never seen, so I wanted to buy quite a few of them. But I was short on Canadian cash, they wouldn't take my American cash, and there was a language barrier and/or problem with my credit card. So I ended up having to cull my selection to fit within the cash on hand, thus foregoing some snacks that I might never find again. Very sad. Then I got flagged for an extra security check at the Montreal airport. They carefully went through every nook and cranny of my suitcase, but the three shopping bags filled with chips were pushed aside and not inspected at all, as the security person just said, "Oh, you can have your snacks."
Sometimes the great finds aren't in such exotic locations — they're hiding right under our chip hunters' noses. One day years ago, I forgot to pack a lunch for work and dropped into a convenience store on the way to pick up a cup of yogurt. I had driven by this place for years without giving it a second thought as a place to check for chips. It turned out that the fabulous Kiki's Kwik-Mart had a huge selection of Irish crisps that I'd never seen sold on this side of the ocean. In the years since, Kiki's had been a consistent source of new discoveries, with more than 110 reviews, from Irish and English crisps to imported candy bars and even Frito-Lay snacks that somehow showed up on Kiki's shelves before I could find them anyplace else.
But chip hunting involves more than just supermarkets and convenience stores, as new chips get discovered in all sorts of places. One of my favorite discoveries was Trattoria Chips à l'Ancienne, which I bought at a sandwich place in the Louvre. Nothing particularly special about those chips, but I love being able to say that I went to the Louvre and bought a bag of chips. There's also Pipers Crisps, which I bought in the basement of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Some of the best kettle corn I've tried, Poppin' Shoppe, was purchased directly beneath the St. Louis arch.
And then there are some places so perfectly named for chip hunts that upon encountering them, you just can't not buy something. This was the case for master chip hunters Keith and Melissa when they came upon the Hoover Dam's snacketeria and Mister Chips Convenience store at James Madison University.
It took more than just hunting to find 5000 snacks, as many companies volunteered to send us samples — something I never expected they'd do. The first-ever samples came from Stacy's Pita Chips. Stacy — yes, Stacy herself, years before she sold out to Frito-Lay — saw our initial review of the Texarkana Hot flavor (which complained that it tasted like burnt toast) and contacted us to say we got a bad bag, not representative of the product. So she offered to send us a fresh one (which ended up tasting less like burnt toast) along with her other flavors. Since then, we've reviewed 1260 samples from 225 companies, including ones in Peru, Iceland and Kuwait.
Another thing I never expected was that anybody would take our reviews all that seriously. We're just munching and writing our reactions. We're serious snackers, not food experts. But we've had a few cases where Taquitos.net published a review and then got contacted by the snack's maker to say they've changed their recipe or process specifically because of something that we said. Wow.
Back to that BusinessWeek write-up: It happened to be published the same week as Taquitos.net's first attendance at Snaxpo. Yes, Virginia (or, more precisely, Orlando), there is a Snaxpo — the annual convention of the Snack Food Association. When the founders of our fledgling web site first heard that Snaxpo existed, we said, "We must go." But we figured it would never really happen. When we contacted the SFA, they surprisingly welcomed us with open arms. The fact that Snaxpo was in Orlando in the winter added some motivation. When our contingent of three arrived at the registration desk and saw baskets filled with bags of chips, we knew we belonged. I approached the baskets the same way that I do the supermarket chip aisle — scanned for snacks I hadn't tried and grabbed a bag of each. The difference at Snaxpo was that lots of people were doing the same thing.
At that 2001 convention, just about every time I explained to someone what Taquitos.net does, I got a puzzled reaction. Snack reviews? On the web? Why? Today, everyone's reviewing everything and anything online, but back then people were still trying to figure out what to do with the Interweb. The freshly published BusinessWeek article came in handy, as the copies that I handed out at Snaxpo may have helped legitimize the concept. (When I showed it to one of the SFA's PR folks, he quickly spotted the 10,000 figure and asked where that number came from!)
One of the events at that convention was a 5K road race. You wouldn't necessarily expect a snack industry convention to draw lots of fast runners — and it didn't. I run a lot of races, and I'm relatively fast. Lucky for me, there was only one other remotely fast runner there. He got the victory, but finishing second at the Snaxpo 5K still sounds pretty cool. (I've been to four more Snaxpos since, and none of them included a road race, so that might have been the only-ever Snaxpo road race.)
Even with 5000 reviews, there are some kinds of snacks we've avoided reviewing all along. Having heard some stories about those low-fat, low-calorie chips fried in Olestra causing ... well, digestive issues, none of our regular reviewers wanted to try them. Frito-Lay renamed their Olestra line from "Wow!" to "Light" and we still resisted. During the first year, we did review one Olestra chip, sold by Utz under the name Yes! Chips. Keith Shaw, our Secretary of Snacks, bought the bag, but he wouldn't eat them, so he gave me the bag, but I wouldn't touch them either. A friend who liked Wow! chips offered to write a review, and it remains the only Olestra chip out of 5000.
I did have one close encounter with Olestra myself. At a Snaxpo convention, I was speaking to a food scientist for Procter & Gamble, and he offered me a lower-fat Pringle to try. I crunched in, but when I realized he was talking about it being an Olestra chip, rather than some other kind of low-fat formula, I took the Pringle right out of my mouth and onto a napkin.
We have not reviewed lots of pet snacks, because pets are good snackers but generally not good writers. However, we were so entertained by the Poochie-like dog on the bag of Smacklepuffs that we made an exception and based the review on Scully the Dog's visible reaction.
As the collection of snack reviews has grown, the numbers seemed so unfathomable that we needed something to compare them them against, so there's a page listing each 1000-snack milestone plus when the count equalled various sports-related records. Most recently, we equalled Pete Rose's career hit mark of 4256. If we're still hungry, we may in a couple of years reach Nolan Ryan's 5714 strikeouts. Wow, that's a lot of strikeouts. And a lot of snacks!